Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Poem about Houdini from 1916

This is an unusual and unexpected thing to find in a newspaper. But sure enough, there it was in the Baltimore Sun the day after Houdini's Upside Down Straitjacket Escape in Baltimore. It's a poem about his daring escape.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Houdini In Nashville 1899

The year 1899 was a big year for Houdini. A few months earlier he had his breakout moment in Minnesota. And after years of struggling, his star was beginning to take off. During his first appearance in Nashville TN, he played at the Grand Opera House. The Grand Opera House was built in 1850 and over the years had many names, these include: the original name The Adelphi, the Gaiety, May's Grand, Milsom's and of course The Grand Opera House. In 1902 the building would burn down and be replaced by the Bijou Theatre around 1916 and then by the Municipal Auditorium, which today is The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

Unlike some cities like Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and Baltimore that had many many theaters, Nashville only had four around the turn of the century. Houdini performed at the oldest and most popular of that group.

I will get into what he did at the theatre shortly. But first I want to discuss his first big publicity push when he arrived in town. He showed up, apparently unannounced at the Nashville Police Department on Nov 6th, 1899. An article that appeared in The Nashville American Newspaper, writes, "Before a number of interested spectators at the station house, prof. Harry Houdini, a clever Australian, and a genius among magicians,  worked a number of sleight of hand tricks, which thoroughly mystified those present. " That doesn't sound too spectacular . 'A number of interested spectators', hmmm, not the 50,000 who appeared at his Baltimore event. Also, they have him listed as an Australian. Did they misunderstand what he said, or just exactly what was said? Did they mean Austrian? Which would also be wrong.

As the story goes, Houdini came into the station house, along with some reporters and made the claim they could lock him up in their cuffs and he could get out. The police in the station just laughed at him. Eventually, they brought out three pairs of cuffs, one of which hadn't been opened in 10 years because no one had a key. Houdini took keyless cuff and stepped out of the rom for a moment. When he returned, the cuff was open, to the amazement of the chief of police! The officers locked Houdini in all three pair of cuffs and then, the newspaper article says, "he stepped behind an improvised curtain and began his escape." I'm wondering if this small curtain was his 'ghost house' or if they truly just made a make shift curtain maybe out of sheets or blankets from the jail.

In any event, Houdini was free in 2 minutes and came walking back into the room two minutes later
holding the three cuffs which had now been interlocked together. Note, the image at the top of shows Houdini in a lot more than three pair of cuffs.

After this, Houdini entertained the group with card tricks. This is actually the most interesting part of the article to me. Houdini escaping from handcuffs is what we expect from him. And it's not unheard of for Houdini to do card magic for people. But one trick specifically he performed was The Card Stab. He had a card selected and lost in a shuffled pack. The cards were spread face down on a table. Houdini was then blindfolded, took hold of a spectators wrist, and with the aid of a pen knife, stabbed the selected card. The newspaper said he referred to this as 'mind reading'.

This effect is Malini's Card Stab! Or to be more precise, this was the trick that would be known as Malini's Card Stab.  I always thought it was Malini's trick, but apparently, it wasn't. I don't know the origin of the trick sadly. I can see that tricks like The Card Sword, and Nailing a Card to the Wall, could be precursors to the Card Stab. But I don't know the origin of the Card Stab. It's amazing to see Houdini using it at this appearance. He followed this up with his needle trick. Apparently he put on quite an impromptu show for the police and newspaper reporters present.

 Also in Nashville this first week were Frederick the Great and Herrmann The Great (Leon).

On Sunday Nov 12, 1899, The Nashville American Newspaper had a notice that says Houdini has been held over a second week. His previous escapes from handcuffs and insane devices drew lots of crowds. They also report what a great sensation his cabinet trick was, probably referring to his sub trunk. And then they also print the notice to the left.

Please note the image which mentions Lafayette will be appearing at the Grand as well.  A significant event in magic history will take place during Lafayette's run.

It was during this time that Houdini gave Lafayette a little dog as a gift. That dog, who would be named Beauty, would become Lafayette's traveling companion, co-star and best friend in real life.

Finally, notice the ad that appeared directly under the GRAND ad. This one is from the Grand Opera House and reads, "$250 Reward To Any Sheriff, Constable, Officer or private citizen who can produce any regulation HAND-CUFFS or LEG-SHACKLES from which HOUDINI, the HAND-CUFF KING, cannot extricate himself, allowing the key-hole to be sealed, proving he uses no keys or wires, and brings out the cuffs interlocked, showing he does not slip his hands." This from the Manager of the Grand Opera House. Though I'm sure it was Houdini who put up the $250 reward, knowing his money was safe. I think from the newspaper accounts, the management at the Grand did not know what they had in Houdini when he first arrived. But as the week progressed and he began to get newspaper coverage, and they saw the crowds increase, they realized Houdini was a money maker for the theatre and really began to push his appearances at the theatre.

This was Houdini's first visit to Nashville TN and he would return in the future. I'll be covering more of his escapades in Nashville in the future.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Houdini In Baltimore 1916

There has always been a certain magic about the city of Baltimore to me.  First off, Milbourne Christopher, Hen Fetch, Johnny Eck, Phil Thomas, Denny Haney, and a host of others were born there. And even more lived there like Henry Ridgely Evans, Thomas Worthington, and it was home to the Demon's Clubhouse and The Society of Osiris Magicians. In 1908, Harry Kellar passed the mantle of magic on to Howard Thurston, from the stage at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. And I should mention, I too was born in Baltimore. My Great Great Grandfather was killed in Baltimore. run over by a train while working for the B&O Railroad Company. Which brings me to the photo at the top of the page.

The photo was taken from the B&O Railroad Building on Charles St. in Baltimore. The crowd is watching Houdini free himself while hanging upside down in a straitjacket in front of the Sun Building on April 26, 1916. The photo is of the crowd, which has been mistakenly printed as 500,000 on several websites. It is actually a crowd of 50,000. You may note,  Houdini is not in the picture. He would have been on the far right hand side, IF the photographer had been able to reach out far enough to capture him.

Houdini was appearing at The Maryland Theatre and having quite a run. In the Daily Record Newspaper, April 24th, 1916, they say that Houdini has just returned from a trip around the world. They mention his record setting aviation flight in Australia and also the fact he has never been defeated in any challenge.  The paper also mentions Houdini is accepting challenges from all comers. And when not attempting to defeat a challenger, he will be introducing his original invention, The Chinese Water Torture Cell. The postcard image to the left shows one of the few pictures of the Maryland Theatre in Baltimore. The theatre is the slightly shorter building on the left hand side of the image. The taller building attached is the Kernan Hotel. Neither building is standing today.

Houdini  Upside down from the cornice of the Balt. Sun  Bld.
The Baltimore Sun has an interesting take on his straitjacket escape. The headline reads, "HOUDINI SWINGS TODAY". The body of the article mentions that 4 policemen and a sailor will tie up Houdini and THEN they'll place a straitjacket over him and perhaps some handcuffs. This sounds like an odd arrangement, but I suppose it's possible. Further investigation shows that the tying was for his feet, and no handcuffs were added. Houdini declared the escape would take between 10 and 15 minutes.

At 12:22pm he was hoisted 50 ft into the air from the corner of the Baltimore Sun Newspaper Building. The police chief was the one who made the estimate of 50,000 people. The paper said the people were so densely packed that it was almost impossible to move! Not only did people fill the streets, but they were hanging out windows and could even be seen from the rooftops of nearby buildings all to catch a glimpse of Houdini's escape.

The Baltimore Sun paper also mentions that a wagon was set up so that Houdini and the policemen could stand on it and secure Houdini in place. This also allows the huge crowd to watch every detail of the event take place because of it's higher position.

The police chief and police marshall both watched Houdini's escape from an office in the Sun Building, so they likely had the best seat in the house. Bess Houdini stayed on the wagon below, but according to the paper did not watch her husband escape. "I am always afraid" she said after it was over.

His straitjacket escape was covered in three papers: The Daily Record, The Baltimore Sun and a German language paper Der Deutsche Correspondent.

Houdini was in town to play the Maryland Theatre for a week starting April 24th. According to the Baltimore Sun, Houdini began his act with the East Indian Needle Trick. Following this a short film was shown of Houdini doing a packing crate escape in the Pacific Ocean that apparently took place during the California exposition the previous year. When the short film was over, Houdini then presented his Water Torture Cell. This was day 1 of his week long stay, so no doubt as the week progressed the time was filled with challenges.

The Baltimore Sun also has a report on a challenge Houdini received during his run. He was challenged to escape from a Piano Box that would be screwed and nailed shut and then have iron bands placed around it. This from the April 25th edition (day 2 of his week long run) of the Baltimore Sun. Day three he did the Hanging Straitjacket outdoors. But there was also a challenge on Day 3 which appeared as the following: Dear Sir, the undersigned mechanics hereby challenge you to escape from a gibbit we made from heavy irons bands, such as was used many years ago to suspend prisoners in mid-air until death relieved their sufferings."

On April 27th, Houdini was challenged to escape from a cask filled with Arrow Beer by the C.B.S. Brewing Company. There is no record of any special challenge on the 28, 29th or 30th.

Houdini was in Baltimore numerous times, so I will be covering more about them soon.